Kirby Nelson is back, and Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona is releasing his opening round of beers. It shouldn't be surprising that Nelson, who admits that he's a lager guy at heart, is turning out an amber lager as one of the first brews. When he was at Capital Brewery, Nelson defined the style for many local drinkers. Now he is once again letting us know how good an amber can be.
What is it? Amber Lager from Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona, Wisconsin.
Style: The amber lager is in a group of loosely defined copper-colored lagered beers. They are distinguished by their deep amber to reddish-copper color, along with solid caramel-maltiness and a light but firm biscuit aroma. It's not an overly malty-sweet beer; rather, it's clean and well-balanced, with low hoppiness. American amber lagers are medium-bodied and range from 4.8% to 5.4% ABV. They are closely related to the Vienna (or red) lager style that emerged in the mid-1800s.
Background: Kirby Nelson likes offer this adage: "Beer should be about a pleasant but rich experience." He's adamant that strongly bitter beers shouldn't be a "freak show in your mouth" -- rather, a drinker should be able to taste and appreciate the flavor of the beer.
Nelson's love for amber lagers goes back to his college days in La Crosse, when he discovered Hacker-Pschorr Munich Dark (or Münchner Dunkel). "It sparked an interest in trying a wider variety of beers, and I found I really loved big malt flavor," he says. "A nice amber lager should have a personality unique to itself, be a solid companion, and remain enjoyable as long as you care to drink it."
Wisconsin Brewing Amber Lager is made with Moravian 37 barley. It's similar to malt used in clean-tasting pilsners. Nelson became excited about it during his time off before opening Wisconsin Brewing. He picked up ideas for how it might work from Mark Stutrud, who owns Summit Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota, and who has this type of barley grown on his fourth-generation family farm in North Dakota. In addition to Moravian 37, Nelson also uses Caramel and Munich malts for more color and body.
Nelson chose Willamette hops for bitterness and balance, which he purchases from Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie. Willamette is the only hop variety used to make his Amber Lager. He selected hops that will grow well in Wisconsin for all of his initial releases, and as more hop varieties are grown in-state, he plans to include them when they become available.
Prior to the brewery's opening, Amber Lager was one of four beers that Nelson piloted in experimental batches made with other local brewers. An early version of it, simply called WBC #001, was brewed at the downtown Great Dane back in April. The beer finishes at 5.5% ABV.
Nelson made developed other beers for the brewery's initial portfolio. They are: Brown Porter, with lots of dark roasted chocolate malt; a light-bodied and low alcohol Session IPA (India Pale Ale), that ends up around 4.8% ABV; and an assertive American IPA made with Centennial, Chinook, Columbus and Cascade hops, that finishes at 7.1% ABV and 60 IBU (International Bitterness Units). All four were unveiled by the brewery at its launch party.
The newness and size of the brewhouse means that Nelson already has a big list of beers he's hoping to make. Among those are a Maibock and a Saison, along with more hoppy brews.
- Aroma: Light, firm maltiness, with just a hint of bread-like earthiness.
- Appearance: Rich, vivid copper color. Very clear. Medium-soft tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied and smooth.
- Taste: The caramel maltiness is up front, with hints of biscuit-bready flavor in the background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: There is a light maltiness, yet it finishes very clean and fast.
Glassware: The Willi Becher, with its inward taper near the lip, will focus the nose, hold the head and show off the beer's brilliant copper color. Unfortunately far too few beer venues use this style of glassware, but Wisconsin Brewing uses the Willi Becher in its taproom. It's just another example of the brewery's thoughtful attention to detail.
Pairs well with: Wisconsin Brewing Amber Lager is a versatile beer that will go with a variety of foods. The firm caramel maltiness is a fine complement to grilled steaks and even brats and other fall tailgating standards.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Wisconsin Brewing Amber Lager is smooth and clean, with a nice balance. The style itself is somewhat middle-of-the-road, and as such will appeal to a wide range of drinkers. That makes it a great introductory beer for those wanting to try Wisconsin Brewing and the work of brewmaster Kirby Nelson. He does a great job of hitting the center line with this beer. I recently had a chance to experience similar versions of the style on a trip to Germany, and Nelson's creation stacks up among the best of them.
Wisconsin Brewing Amber Lager is malty without being thick or cloying, and its finish is quite clean. Nelson deserves credit for choosing it as his first beer given all of the things that can go wrong when firing up a new brew house. This beer should find a niche as the brewery's signature release. But then again, with Nelson's well-earned reputation for making great amber lagers, it's a little like John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence with an exclamation point!